By Mike Hogeterp
For seven generations, church-run boarding schools removed Indigenous children from their families. These schools’ expressed intent was to kill the Indian in the child. They denied the humanity and dignity of Indigenous people, both in governmental policy and in the attitudes of Canadians.
The results have been the loss of Indigenous language and culture as well as cycles of poverty, addiction, and abuse in many Indigenous communities. Canadians might not know it, but we’ve been deprived of the good contributions that Indigenous people could have been bringing to our collective lives.
For the last five years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been hearing the stories of survivors of the Indian residential schools system. The truths expressed have been searing, agonizing, and heart-rending. The TRC will present its final report at a closing event from May 31 to June 3 in Ottawa.
The last time a major national study on Indigenous issues was undertaken in Canada – the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP) – the great ideas and recommendations were quickly put on a dusty shelf. That was a tragedy for Indigenous people and the integrity of the nation of Canada. Like the RCAP, the terrible and beautiful truths expressed at the TRC are too important to sit in an archive – they must transform our collective lives.
Justice Murray Sinclair, lead Commissioner of the TRC, has been in the habit of saying, “If you thought the truth was hard, reconciliation will be harder.” The point is, if truth really is truth, it implies action and response that will not be easy.
The Right Rev. Mark MacDonald, my friend, mentor, and the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, speaks of the reconciliation challenge that Sinclair has named. Canada, MacDonald explains, has a deep moral wound. We need to address the deep systemic evils related to colonialism and residential schools in order to enter into reconciliation. This means that neither the Prime Minister’s apology nor the final TRC report is the last word. Apology and reconciliation require a turning.
Many Christian communities have been working with Indigenous partners to understand what turning to reconciliation will look like. This includes a great array of learning and advocacy opportunities. KAIROS is doing stellar work to organize churches for Time for Reconciliation, an event to celebrate the TRC and to build momentum for reconciliation.
KAIROS has also done a great service to Canada and the church community in the Blanket Exercise. This great interactive resource teaches Canadian history from Indigenous perspectives. To forge a common future, we need to learn the reality of our shared past.
Canadians might not know it, but we’ve been deprived of the good contributions that Indigenous people could have been bringing to our collective lives.
In our house, the Christian Reformed Church, we have appreciated the Blanket Exercise and regularly hear the question: So now what? Living the 8th Fire is our answer. This set of learning circles is built around the CBC series 8th Fire. It is intended to help Canadians get to know their Indigenous neighbours. Moving beyond stereotypes and hearsay to listening deeply breaks down the barriers between us.
Many church communities are studying the Doctrine of Discovery. This set of Papal Bulls from the 15th century justified colonial expansion by dehumanizing “heathen” non-Europeans. Its doctrine had deep legal implications in the settlement of North America and we are only just beginning to understand the systemic racism that came with it. Discerning the impact of this doctrine and then acting accordingly will be very important as churches struggle with their role in colonialism. Knowing the depths of brokenness in our history is important for healing.
Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCFCS), has said, “Reconciliation means not saying sorry twice.” And yet, in a “post-apology era,” child welfare services and education in First Nations communities are woefully underfunded. These ongoing injustices are an example of the moral wound that Bishop MacDonald talks about. As we look to an election and the release of the final TRC report, citizens can act for culturally-based equity and justice for Indigenous children. This includes supporting I am a Witness, FNCFCS’s child welfare campaign, and Shannen’s Dream, which promotes education. It also means discussing these core reconciliation issues with political leaders. Reconciliation means bearing witness for fundamental change.
Knowing our neighbours, knowing the full scope of our history, and bearing witness for justice together will be the work of reconciliation. This hard work, shared with our Indigenous neighbours in the lead and nurtured by the Spirit of Creator God, will be a joyful turning from a broken past. This is sacred work in this important year in the life of this place called Canada
Mike Hogeterp is the Director of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue.